KinoKultura: Issue 46 (2014)

Interview with Lisa Rayel Jeffrey

By Frederick H. White, Utah Valley U

lisa jeffreyLisa Rayel Jeffrey is an actress of stage and screen who starred in Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother 2 (2000). In this film Jeffrey plays a true-to-life version of herself – Chicago news reporter Lisa Jeffrey, who nearly runs over Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), offering him a place to stay as he recovers from his injuries. Jeffrey’s other notable achievements include the one-woman show Visible Woman, the inspirational book Evolution of a Woman and several awards and commendations for community service.  Jeffrey agreed in early August 2014 to a phone interview to discuss her experiences and memories of working on Balabanov’s sequel to the 1997 hit Brother. [1]

Frederick H. White: Can you tell me how you got involved with Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother 2? Was there a casting call or did you have a professional recommendation?

Lisa Rayel Jeffrey: I had already been pretty busy as an actor in Chicago, before I had left for Los Angeles. I was performing in a play in LA, when one of my Chicago connections, someone connected with the film, recommended me. So, I was recommended and we went from there, it was pretty much: “You are her.” They flew me in for the necessary dates.

FHW: Did CTB, the production company of Balabanov and Sergei Sel’ianov, prepare you for this film by providing you with the first Brother film to watch or by explaining the connecting premise of the two films?

LRJ: No, no one really does that. I do my own background research, if there is any to do. Similar to Sergei Bodrov, who I learned later had been doing something entirely different before acting, my undergraduate degree was in Business and my Master’s was in Sociology so it is my nature to research a role – especially given the particular timing of this film. This was the beginning of the post-Soviet period and, I don’t want to say a period of chaos, but… What happens when a form of government radically changes? There is a shift in people’s perceptions. So, from my research, I felt that the first film expressed that newly emerging sentiment in Russia and that the film was so popular because Sergei Bodrov had come to encapsulate their need for a new heroic icon. That is what I gained from my research. In general, CTB wanted me to play myself (the character has my name), yet as an American reporter. I saw sides of the script and I knew it was about a Russian hero coming to America to take on the mafia as a form of retribution.

FHW: Since we have already touched on this topic, what are some of your lasting impressions of Sergei Bodrov Jr., who passed away in 2002?

LRJ: Sergei was incredibly sweet. He was humble and professional. He waited for his instructions and was very compliant. I understood some of this in cultural terms as Russian filming has a very hierarchical, fraternal structure; it really was kamikaze filmmaking. Sergei did all of his own stunts and he did them without any real prep. Frankly, when I learned that Sergei had died in an avalanche, I was devastated, but I was not completely surprised because they did not use any safety precautions when I worked with them. I was at a gas station in LA and a Russian émigré recognized me and told me about Sergei’s death; I had not seen it on the news.

FHW: Can you describe Balabanov’s directorial style?

LRJ: It was raw. In fact, I was kind of viewed as a “bad sport” in a way, because at one point I suggested to them that it was crazy not to take any safety precautions. For example, I was driving on the expressway without a hitch or a dolly. Usually you are at least flanked by another car. I was really driving and there was a camera next to me and a camera in the back seat and I was driving and driving and looking back and driving and I was supposed to act hysterical as I was negotiating these real turns on the expressway. Similarly, there was a scene where I hit Sergei with the car. I am not a stunt driver. I just knew that I did not want to hurt him and that he had to perfectly time it – when to jump up onto the hood of the car. We had a couple of takes of that scene. Sergei would never say a word. He would just get up and do it again. He never complained. I have worked with American stars and there is no way… [laughing]. As a result, I actually called the producer in Chicago who had recommended me in the first place and in talking to him I mentioned that the crew was not taking any safety precautions. After that, I was considered a “whiner,” but what could I do? I am not sure if this is maybe why they reduced my role in the film? I was looking at these cases of vodka, bought for the film crew, that are quickly disappearing while we were shooting these stunts and…

I did not have many encounters with Balabanov. They were all pretty intense and there was this Russian fraternity among them. In most American film productions there is a lot of pre- and post-production especially when you are shooting on-location; there is an official wrap; you check the dailies; you secure the premises; you do so much before you even begin to shoot. But Balabanov never seems to have evolved his style beyond “Shoot! Let’s go!” It struck me as all very macho. To me it was even more surprising given that Brother had been very successful and Sergei Bodrov was extremely popular in Russia. I equated Sergei with Tom Cruise as he was the Brother franchise. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Cruise does his own stunts, but you better believe that Lloyds of London and everyone else involved in insuring him are taking every precaution to protect Tom Cruise. For a film that had a 1.5 million dollar budget, it does seem like some elementary precautions could have been taken in making Brother 2.

FHW: Brother 2 is one of Balabanov’s most pro-Russian / anti-American films. Did you get a sense of this when you were making the film?

LRJ: Honestly, I gained a lot of perspective on how we are perceived by others due to the American films that they watch. It is like we had a black pimp and we had a black homeless guy… There was one very profound scene, which stood out for me and gave me an inordinate amount of respect for Balabanov as a filmmaker, when the main characters were sitting around a campfire and a homeless man approaches them and antagonizes them. Once they have driven him off, the Russian prostitute says: “I think that the power’s in them. There’s something primordial and brutal about these people. We lost it, that’s why they’re stronger. Whites feel that and are frightened.” I felt that that was profound that Balabanov would acknowledge that. When I was growing-up, my grandmother had a picture of the black Madonna – and that was in Poland. In certain parts of the world, in certain countries in Europe and especially in black countries, there is an acknowledgement that African-Americans are more than what the American media portrays and the box that media creates for them.

FHW: One of the more interesting scenes from the Western perspective is when your character is seduced by Danila (Sergei Bodrov) after knowing him for a brief amount of time and without any realistic basis for a romantic attraction. Did you have much input in this scene?

LRJ: In the film, I hit Danila with my car; I take him back to my place; I have to go to work and I leave him at my place. He falls asleep and when I come home, I lean over him and touch his wound and he wakes up. My character then says: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She starts to get up and Danila grabs her and seduces her. In so many movies it does not make much sense why there is a love scene and segues are often ridiculous so in that sense the scene was not out of the ordinary. I understood it this way – that Danila/Bodrov is a Russian sex symbol and my character simply cannot turn that down. It was not that my character was forced to do it, but that she could not resist because he was such a hunk.

FHW: Upon your first viewing of the Brother 2, what were your initial thoughts?

LRJ: Of course, I am an actress so there is an initial inclination to first view my own performance and critique myself. Then I re-watched it and broadened my perspective. Again, because I was very sensitive to the dynamics of the society then, I could understand how this film could be beloved in Russia. I can compare it to films from the blaxploitation period.[2] Films like Superfly were comic book big and a little absurd, but we flocked to them because it made people in a recently oppressed population suddenly feel like they had some power. Bodrov and his character seemed to me to encapsulate that need that the Russian people had for someone to avenge them and to give them a sense of power that they did not have. With America being such a looming presence in the world, there are many countries that want to “stick-it” to America – just like black people wanted to “stick-it to the man!”[3] In Brother 2 Danila is not even fighting the US government, but the mafia. How much sympathy can you have for the mafia?

 

7 August 2014


Notes

1] This interview is part of a book project on Aleksei Balabanov tentatively titled Brikolazh Balabanova that will include memoirs, interviews, biographical documents and scholarly essays about the filmmaker and his cinematic work. The proposed book will be published in Russian, but some of the original material in English will appear in KinoKultura prior to publication.

2] American films in the 1970s made specifically for the urban African-American audience that featured primarily black casts and that often subtly (and not so subtly) explored and shaped race relations in the United States. Within blaxploitation movies there are many subgenres, but one of the more successful was the crime/action film. Many contemporary filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, have quoted from this specific cinematic discourse.

3] This phrase was representative of the anti-authority movement in the United States in the 1950s-70s. It was meant to incite civil disobedience against a mainly white male power structure in the US government and society at large.


 

Frederick H. White © 2014

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Updated: 13 Feb 15